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How Rahul Gandhi brought the Congress to its existential crisis

There's a single factor that's always determined the party’s working style, approach, and even its fortunes.

, ET Bureau|
Updated: May 26, 2019, 01.43 PM IST
Starting from 2004, Rahul Gandhi has been replicating his father’s style and approach.
Congress President Rahul Gandhi’s age — he will be 49 next month— and his party’s Lok Sabha tally for 2019 at 52, seem to have moved up in a synchronised manner. Five years ago, in May 2014, Rahul, a highly empowered vice-president at the time, was on the threshold of turning 44, exactly the number of seats Congress had won in the sixteenth Lok Sabha.

While this is just a coincidence, this unintended tango can be symbolic of the existential crisis that faces both Gandhi and his party. The Congress party constitution and its traditions vest almost unassailable powers with the party president. This single factor has determined the party’s style of working, its approach, reflexes, and even its fortunes. At any given time the party is as good as its leader. Their fates are intertwined.

If we look back, in terms of power and electoral politics, the most successful and aggressive, and may be controversial phase in the life of the Congress party coincided with the years when it was led by Indira Gandhi. A “Shakti” phase if you like. Or if you take the leadership of the Narasimha Rao era, the then PM’s love for intrigue and machinations behind closed doors, often against his own colleagues, also mirrored the party’s inability to mark its presence on the ground.

The party’s moves under the leadership of Sitaram Kesri, on the other hand (Kesri was the only Congress president who was virtually sacked) truly reflected the man’s insecurities. And the tenure of Sonia Gandhi at the helm saw the Congress establishment casting itself in her status-quoist and extra cautious and all-pleasing approach.

For understanding Rahul Gandhi’s leadership of the party, one should look back at his father Rajiv Gandhi’s leadership of the Congress between the years 1984 and 1991. Having ridden to power on the electoral wave generated by Indira Gandhi’s assassination, Rajiv Gandhi quickly dubbed seasoned Congress leaders — a part of his mother’s close circle — as “power brokers”.

He then started systematically sidelining and ejecting seasoned politicians and replacing them with his buddies from Doon School and other rookie politicians. Once he had dismantled the complex Congress system without knowing how to reassemble it, his leadership was left vulnerable to attacks from within, even while the 400-plus seats in the Lok Sabha between 1984 and 1989 protected the government.

His cabinet colleagues VP Singh and Arun Nehru, who was also his cousin, made the most of Rajiv Gandhi’s political naivety, joining forces with the opposition to defeat the Congress in 1989. We see something similar with Rahul Gandhi today.

Starting from 2004, when he first eased himself into the power circles of the Congress at the beginning of the first UPA government under Manmohan Singh until now in 2019, when he has already led the party to its two worst defeats, Rahul Gandhi has been replicating his father’s style and approach.

During this time he has been general secretary, vice-president and then the president of the party. His efforts to reform and democratise the party started with the Youth Congress and the National Students Union of India, two time-tested and bold nurseries for future Congress leaders.

However, he ended up reforming the Alsatian into a Poodle. After the Congress won 20 Lok Sabha seats from Uttar Pradesh in 2009, often touted as his first electoral success, Rahul Gandhi replaced the seasoned leaders with ‘lightweight outsiders’ such as Mohan Prakash and Madhusudan Mistry to experiment with ‘Mandal and NGO politics’ and ended up ‘finishing the reversing of the revival’ in the 2012 UP Assembly polls.

Ever since he took complete charge in the period between 2013 and 2019, Rahul Gandhi’s evident discomfort in the company of seasoned Congress leaders had been a matter of open gossip in the party circles — as much as his penchant for propping up apolitical rookies and ‘hereditary turks’.

To many, his discomfort with seasoned politicians was less about generation gap and more a personal issue. As a result when Amit Shah was plotting BJP’s “game plans” in West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha and Rajasthan, Rahul brought in novices such as Gaurav Gogoi, Dipak Babaria, Avinash Pandey and Jitendra Singh respectively as Congress’ counters.

The result of his boldest move, bringing in Priyanka Gandhi and Jyotiraditya Scindia for UP, also matched the duo’s organisational experience — a big zero. Simultaneously, his own collaborations with seasoned pros became minimal, often using AICC general secretary KC Venugopal as a go-between. Congress circles watched in amusement the emergence of a non-political cabal as Rahul’s new think-tank: ex-bureaucrat K Raju, data analyst Praveen Chakravarty, social media specialist Nikhil Alva, technocrat Sam Pitroda and, of course, ex-cricketer and television personality Navjot Singh Sidhu.

The result was communication gap and confusion within the Congress leadership as the party headed for the general elections — after managing narrow victories by reaping the antiincumbency against BJP regimes in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh.

Also, the seniors who survived the Rahul approach are either demoralised at being kept at a distance or have exhausted political capital in the face of the onslaught by the Modi government’s ‘political aggression’ and the well-oiled BJP electioneering machinery.

It all culminated in a solo blitzkrieg by Rahul Gandhi. It is an inhouse protocol in the Congress, and somewhat of a well-guarded secret, that only the Gandhis are allowed to campaign across the country. It ended up looking like a noisy exercise handicapped by a lack of astute leadership, political content, organisational backup and cohesive teamwork.

The post-defeat CWC meeting on Saturday, indulging in platitudes such as calling for collective introspection, rejecting Rahul’s offer of resignation and empowering him to restructure the party, more than anything else, advertise the plight of a party and its president groping in darkness — while bracing for more hostile days under the new Modi government — in their intertwined journey towards an uncertain future.

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